Monday, 13 January 2014

Human Rights are Moral Illusions

I wrote previously on the question of whether human rights were to be given to humans insofar as they function as humans, or humans insofar as they actually are human (see here), in particular focusing on the issue of abortion, and I ended on that issue by noting that rights lend themselves to a hierarchical system of rights, where some take precedence over others, thereby leaving the abortion issue unresolved even if humans have the right to life merely by being human.
Illusions: things
are not as they seem.

I claim that human rights do not exist as moral realities, but that they are illusions created by other moral realities. Let me distinguish, however, between moral and legal conceptions of rights: clearly, legal rights exist, since they are existent by the mere fact that the legislation of some country, or international law, recognizes them as existent. Rights are important as legal concepts - just not, I claim, as moral or ethical concepts.

Before I continue, I must define more precisely what I mean by "human rights". I will take the first definition proposed by Jerome Shestack in the Human Rights Quarterly when he says that "Sometimes "right" is used in its strict sense of the right holder being entitled to something with a correlative duty in another."[1] This definition brings out two features that seem to me to be crucial to discussions of human rights: human rights are entitlements and they have correlative duties.

Various attacks on human rights have occurred in philosophy: Jeremy Bentham famously said that human rights were "nonsense upon stilts", Karl Marx rejected them as bourgeois inventions and illusions, and Alasdair MacIntyre argued that "there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns." MacIntyre's point was that there have not been successful arguments for the existence of human rights, and I will take him to be correct on this point.

Other groups, notably animal rights activists, object to human rights being human to the detriment of other species - that is, they object on the grounds of speciesism. Whilst these objections are important to consider for defenders of the concept of human rights, it is clear that (in the case of the animal rights activists, at least) they wish to expand the concept of rights to other creatures, such as animals, or some have suggested even that the environment has rights. Hence, they would reject human rights only insofar as they applied exclusively to humans and hence negated the idea of animal rights.

Of the bases for human rights that have been proposed, all are unconvincing: early modern philosophers, such as John Locke, appealed to faulty notions of natural law. John Stuart Mill, from the utilitarian perspective, claimed rights could be founded upon utility, and yet, appeals to utility are too fluid for any recognizable understanding of rights (such as, that they are inalienable). Legal positivist accounts (Thomas Hobbes could, perhaps, fall under this category) claim that rights come from the authority of the state - a claim I can agree with only insofar as it is said that human rights come from the authority of the state legally, which says nothing about how they arise morally without some theory to the effect of "state-makes-right." Related to these are the rights that arise from Marxist conceptions of the state, where individual rights do not exist as unalienable, and are always subject to the changing needs (or whims) of the state - until the Marxist utopian ideal is reached, that is. Rights conceptions which rely on a conception of humankind as individual and autonomous suffer the same criticism as Kantian ethics does, largely because Kant underlies many such theories (I would suggest reading Bernard Williams' masterpiece Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy for such criticisms). I cannot comment on Rawlsian arguments for human rights because I am not sufficiently familiar with his theory (other than in outline). Perhaps Rawls can succeed where others have failed.

To establish the non-existence of moral rights will take more than a paragraph about the failings of other theories to prove them, particularly because not being able to prove something does not mean it is not true. Yet belief in them does not appear to be self-evidently justified - on what basis, other than perhaps the theological one I have not discussed, can homo sapiens be said to have moral entitlements? Suppose that I can now claim that human rights do not exist qua moral rights - what follows? I have labelled human rights as moral illusions, and this they are: supposing they do not exist, we nonetheless perceive them to exist, and my question is, why? What moral reality underlies our misleading perception that human rights exist as moral entities?

I have dismissed the idea that human beings have entitlements as human beings, and here the other part of the definition given by Shestack becomes relevant - do I dismiss also that human beings have correlative duties? No. Herein lies the proposed basis for the moral illusion of human rights: because everyone has duties as human beings, moral structures with the appearance of human rights appear. The appearance of rights is rooted in the reality of duties.

For instance, take the right to life: if everybody has the duty to respect the lives of others, then it at least seems, in general cases, as if everyone has a corresponding right to life. Or the right to freedom of speech: if everyone has a duty to allow others to think freely and speak freely, the illusion of a right to freedom of speech is born. The view that human rights are the fount of duties (to grant the entitlements and respect the liberties) is actually backwards: it is duties that becomes the fount of human rights.

This view will be, I think, acceptable to various groups: the animal rights activists may have to give up their name, but now have a much more solid foundation to claim the respect for animals that they seek. Environmental activists can now speak of environmental rights as shorthand for the duties which humans have towards the environment.

There does seem to be one glaring problem with my thesis: my adoption of a utilitarian framework may lead one to think that it must be conceptually difficult to speak of duties, since duties more naturally arise in deontological accounts of ethics. This is only superficially true, as it is clear that the duty to maximise utility is inherent in utilitarian theories. I will discuss how more specific sorts of duties arise out of this general duty, and so render this account of duties-to-rights intelligible at another time.

One particular case I will address was the one left unresolved when I discussed whether human rights were to be granted by function or by nature, that of prenatal children: I argued that they had the right to life, and yet, this did not lead conclusively to the position that abortion is always wrong, only that it is generally wrong (that is, unless exceptional circumstances warrant the setting aside of the right to life). I cited Naomi Wolf as someone who appears to hold this view.

Now I have proposed that rights come from duties, and now it seems clearer that I can make a firm moral judgement: from the fact that it is always our duty to consider our own good as interchangeable with that of others (a duty that arises from broad utilitarian considerations as well as Catholic edicts such as "love your neighbour as yourself"), and if it is the case that humans are loci of incredible value, then we have a duty towards humans. Again, the considerations of by function vs. by nature that I described previously in "Intrinsic Human Rights - by function or by nature?" now kick into play, as it becomes clear that humans are valuable as humans, not as beings who function as humans. Therefore, the killing of prenatal children is morally wrong not as a breach of rights, but as a failure to comply with one's moral duties. This serves as my response to the "violinist analogy"[2] of Judith Jarvis Thomson, because on this view one does have the duty towards the violinist.

Once again I raise the issue as one I have acknowledged: where do these duties come from, particularly on my own utilitarian framework? I will turn to this issue, one I claim to be easily dealt with, on another occasion.

[1] Shestack, J., “The Philosophic Foundations of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly 20 (1998) 201-234
[2] Thomson, J.J., “A Defence of Abortion”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (1971): 47-66



1. It is clear that I must square all of what I have been saying in light of my theological understanding of humanity. For instance, is it not the case that the right to life is something inherent in all humans by virtue of their being bearers of the Imago Dei? I have set aside theological considerations, and, as with the note above, I will address the issue of understanding how these two (or three) points of view match up in another piece. 

2. What about natural law bases for human rights? I recognize that it has been the natural law which has historically given rise to the language of rights. I will address these concerns later on. This is a very important area however, because not only is natural law intrinsically secular (and so it can be easily brought into the public sphere), but since rights have their genesis historically in natural law theories, human rights as concepts are unlikely to be properly understood outside their context.

3. Since I have been reading a lot of academic papers recently, I feel the need to apologize for not researching for this blog-post. Although it may sound snobbish to say so, I do have a decent background in the idea of human rights, and so I have relied upon that to get a feeling for how the field stands today. I make no firm assertion that what I say is original or not rejected for some good reasons that are unknown to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment